the men who said no
‘I hired a lorry and walked through the town, carrying the Keswick banner, a forlorn procession of one, accompanied by a rabble of small boys and a shower of banana skins..'  


Catherine Marshall is the most well-known of the women at the No Conscription Fellowship office: ‘she contributed more to the fellowship’s success and survival than any other individual.’

She has been described as ‘one of the most important of the women who during the war tried to establish links between feminism and pacifism, arguing that a social order based on force was always against the interests of women. Believing that women had a natural horror of war, she saw the women’s movement as giving women a voice that had previously been denied them. She saw women’s special task as preaching co-operation rather than conflict, and service rather than domination.

This uniquely qualified and experienced woman with her organisational ability and political contacts made during the suffrage struggle put her knowledge into effect to help the COs. The CO movement was incredibly fortunate. By July 1916 she was appointed Honorary Secretary of the NCF, pending the release of the CO men from prison. She organised the records department so efficiently that the NCF knew more about the whereabouts of the COs than the War Office did. She created and guided the political committee and prepared the publicity campaigns. By providing questions for sympathetic MPs and Lords to ask, she kept the issue of COs and their treatment alive in Parliament. The War Office sometimes rang her up to get information so that they could answer the questions of MPs, not realising that she had provided the MPs with the questions in order to get the information out publicly. She drew on the contacts with MPs and members of the Government she had built up in the suffrage movement. She also maintained contacts with individual COs and their families. It is reported that some two hundred COs evaded arrest, and Catherine Marshall worked out a scheme to help them get employment as window-cleaners, cobblers or odd-jobbers. By the end she calculated that she had flouted the law so many times to help COs she must be liable for 2000 years in prison.

*Mrsall-Lloyd letter

Catherine Marshall was born on 29th April 1880, the daughter of Frank Marshall, a housemaster at Harrow Boys School, and Caroline Colbeck, and she had a younger brother Hal. She was educated privately and then went to St. Leonards School, St. Andrews. She didn’t go to university, it is believed from concerns over her health, but studied history, music and languages at home. In 1905 the family move to the Lake District, to Hawse End beside Derwentwater.

In May 1908 Catherine and her mother joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and established a branch in Keswick. Catherine went on to become a skilled organiser and played an important part in building up the suffrage movement in the Lake District. Her outdoor speaking engagements started with audiences who would usually include miners, ironworkers, working women, some tourists and casual passersby. She believed in bringing women’s suffrage before all sections of the population, not just well-to-do ladies in drawing rooms. She describes one occasion when the national speakers had been delayed so ‘I hired a lorry and walked through the town, carrying the Keswick banner, a forlorn procession of one, accompanied by a rabble of small boys and a shower of banana skins…The street was packed with a dense crowd of people. I spoke for an hour to a delightfully attentive and responsive audience’….’The small boys who had begun by throwing banana skins made honourable amends now by helping us to sell the literature and offering to carry our banner.’ They appointed one as their standard bearer and he turned up to do this at every meeting subsequently in Whitehaven. She started a stall on Keswick market for suffrage literature - and this new idea was picked up and copied all over the country.

She eventually became involved at the national level and worked as Parliamentary Secretary for the NUWSS with a seat on the Executive. Her skills in working at the local level, lobbying local MPs and candidates, building relationships with the editors of local papers, organising and speaking at meetings, were used nationally to build a formidable organisation. These were the suffragists - the nonviolent side of the women’s suffrage movement, working ‘only by peaceful and constitutional methods.’ She believed it was wrong to use the tactics of violence and disorder, which were harming the cause. Her audience understood - at another event, collecting signatures for a petition in the Lake District at the 1910 general election, small boys joined in again to help, explaining ‘They’re Soofferagists not Soofferagettes’, ‘It’s for women as pays rates and taxes same as the men.’ She started a speech saying ‘I am a revolting woman’ - revolting against the monopoly of men in making the laws. She didn’t realise how much of her organisational, press and political lobbying work was unusual.

During 1910 she had become known throughout the NUWSS. ‘Her political astuteness, organising skill, courage and flair for communication…showed as they had never shown before.’ She spoke at the meeting in Stockholm of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in 1911, meeting many of the women who went on to organise the Hague Congress for peace in 1915. Originally a Liberal she gradually became disillusioned with them and moved towards the Labour party, helping to develop co-operation between the suffrage movement and the Labour party. By 1913 she was building relationships with MPs, which might involve tea with Lloyd George (he liked informal meetings) and lobbying actively in the build up to an expected general election. She chaired one of the 17 platforms, in front of 2000 people, at a huge Hyde Park rally - the culmination of the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage from all parts of the country, in July. Within weeks she had organised meetings with all parties, including a deputation to see the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith. Contacts with Lloyd George were not going so well; he called her ‘cantankerous’ so she wrote:

When you are working night and day for a cause, giving up all the things you care about most in life for the sake of it (as hundreds of women are doing for Women’s suffrage today), it is disappointing when those who alone have the power to make your work bear fruit in an Act of Parliament say, in effect: ‘Yes, you are good little girls; we quite approve of the way in which you are working and the object you are working for, and our advice to you is to go on pegging away. Don’t get tired, and don’t get cross. Some day, when we have settled all our own business, we will bring in a Bill to give you what you want - only of course we can’t do anything so long as some of you are naughty and throw stones.’ When we know that it is just that attitude which makes the naughty ones throw stones we feel that you are asking us to work in a vicious circle.
‘I often wish you were an unenfranchised woman instead of being Chancellor of the Exchequer! With what fire you would lead the woman’s movement, and insist that no legislation was more important than the right of those whom it concerned to have a say in it.’

Her biographer sums up Catherine’s contribution to the suffrage movement: ‘the most significant achievement of the women’s suffragists by 1914 was to make women’s suffrage an issue that would not go away…Catherine had moved the NU(WSS) to a position ‘in which they were heard in the inner counsels of every party.’ The war brought an end to this potentially fruitful position of influence.

As war approached in late July 1914, a number of women’s organisations asked Catherine whether the NUWSS, as a nonparty body, would take the lead in a co-operative meeting ‘with the object of strengthening the hands of those who were working to limit the area of the European War, and to provide a platform from which the Women’s Organisations could express their point of view.’ These organisations included the women’s Trade Union League, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the National Labour League and the Women’s Labour League. The date was fixed for Tuesday, 4 August, at 8 p.m at Kingsway Hall. Two thousand women were there, the majority from the working class, and many more were turned away for lack of room. ‘They showed an unequivocal horror of the war and a realistic recognition of its probable effects.They called on ‘all Governments not yet involved to work unceasingly towards a settlement, not by force, but by reason.’ Later that night, Britain declared war on Germany, after the expiry of the British ultimatum.

The issue of whether or not to support the war divided the suffrage movement. At first many helped out with relief work whether they supported it or not, including Catherine. Then along with over half the executive she resigned from the NUWSS Executive over their policy towards the war. She was one of four women on a small international committee which met in Amsterdam in February 1915 to plan the Women’s International Congress for peace held in the Hague in April, though prevented by the government from attending along with all the British women trying to cross the Channel (three British women did attend after coming from the States). When deputations from the Congress afterwards visited all the governments involved in the war, she arranged the meetings in Britain with the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. After the Congress she joined the Women’s International League which was set up to continue the work (later Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), and became its Honorary Secretary until September 1916. She represented WIL at a meeting of the No Conscription Fellowship, which was a life changing experience for her. By 1916 she was devoting her energies to the No Conscription Fellowship to help conscientious objectors, day and night.

The NCF leadership were being watched by plain-clothes policemen (the police tried to recruit one of Catherine’s neighbours to spy on her) and had devised a duplicate ‘underground’ organisation in case of arrests. Fenner Brockway accidentally left his bag with the full details of this in a taxi after a committee meeting. Normally taxi-men would hand lost bags to the nearest police station, to be forwarded to Scotland Yard where an inventory of contents would be made. Luckily for the NCF, Catherine Marshall’s brother was a high up official at Scotland Yard and she managed to get him to phone the police stations to find out where it was so that her friend could collect it, without, of course, letting him know what it was. Violet Tillard was sent to collect it from Lambeth police station. The NCF’s secrets were safe.

At the NCF National Convention in April 2016 she presented a plan of campaign on behalf of arrested NCF members, developed by the political committee, and designed by her to use all the skills and strength of the branches around the country. The Labour Leader reported: ‘as the proposals were outlined by Miss Catherine Marshall, probably the ablest woman organiser in the land, it became clear that the Government will have to face a formidable campaign if it does not immediately meet the situation.

In order to find out more, Lloyd George invited Catherine, Clifford Allen and Bertrand Russell to lunch at his home near Reigate, sending his car to collect them. ‘The purpose was clearly to enable the Minister to sound them out on the attitude of the Fellowship towards alternative service.’ Russell found the meeting depressing, thinking Lloyd George just wanted to ‘exercise his skill in trying to start a process of bargaining. Still it was worth something that he should see Allen and know the actual man. It will make him more reluctant to have him shot. I feel convinced the men will have to suffer a good deal before public opinion and Government will cease to wish to persecute them…He seemed quite heartless.’

When necessary, Catherine drew on her contacts to help imprisoned COs - an early case being that of C.H. Norman who managed to smuggle out an account of his mistreatment in Wandsworth prison, including confinement in a strait-jacket and force-feeding. ‘In an emergency, Marshall used her most influential contacts. Within hours the Prime Minister heard of Norman’s plight from at least three sources, within days Brooke (the cruel commandant) was removed from his command..

In May 1916 just as a crisis developed with some COs being sent to France, and later being threatened with being shot (though their sentence was commuted to 10 years penal servitude), an NCF deputation including Catherine had already arranged to see the Prime Minister, Asquith to discuss the new Military Service Bill. He ‘assured the members of the deputation that the Government did not intend the COs to become liable to the death penalty.’ The NCF kept the Prime Minister in touch during the crisis, and he reciprocated. ‘The Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, was directed that no conscientious objector in France was to be shot for refusal to obey orders, and although the order was not made public, notice of it was at once given to Marshall.’ However some COs continued to be sent to France and in the end 34 were threatened with death. If their cases had not been made public by the NCF and others, they would have been in considerable danger of the death sentence being carried out. There is some belief that there was a plot by high-ranking Army and War Office officials, and it seems clear that the Prime Minister mistrusted his own officials, and relied on the NCF for information. To help save the COs, the NCF leaders agreed to the confidentiality demanded.

Catherine built up a relationship of mutual respect with General Childs at the War Office, finding he would listen to and trust in her information and act as necessary. For example when there were reports of serious ill-treatment of COs at Birkenhead she immediately telephoned Childs and went to see him - eventually he held an enquiry into the activities of the officers involved. She hadn’t only relied on this personal contact, but used all other forms of pressure available, such as letters, questions in Parliament, involvement of the trade unions etc. Catherine had known that General Childs once said he wanted to shoot all conscientious objectors, but hoped he had mellowed - at least towards respecting them even if he thought they were still traitors. She argued that ‘he had unfailingly brought a stop to illegal brutalities when they had been brought to his attention.’ In the end, however, both the NCF and the War Office ended this close contact.

One example of Catherine’s organisational ability and ingenuity occurred when some of the COs in Wormwood Scrubs proposed to go on a work and possibly hunger strike against conditions in the prison. ‘Using one of the mysterious channels of communication that always seemed to be open to the NCF when they were needed’ the men concerned consulted the NCF Executive ‘requesting that approval or disapproval should be conveyed by means of a red or white signal displayed in a certain tree outside the prison, within twelve days.’ Unfortunately the message took 11 days to reach the office. In haste, Catherine consulted with Bertrand Russell, then acting Chairman, and it was agreed to say no. Catherine worried about how to get the signal into the tree as she didn’t think it was climbable, she was worried about intrusive policemen, and how to make it stand out from the leaves. She devised a scheme to fly white kites, and sent Lydia Smith with some children to do so. Somehow the kites always became stuck in the correct tree. It was just in time to stop the strike. (In this case white meant No.) Of course Catherine being Catherine, she did also follow up with a letter with a copy of the National Committee’s earlier resolutions against work and hunger strikes.

By the end of 1917 Catherine Marshall was on the verge of a breakdown after such an intense period of over-work and worry. She was in love with Clifford Allen, the NCF Chairman, and found the period of his imprisonment very hard. When he was released, seriously ill, in November, she withdrew from active involvement in the NCF. He was at first in a Quaker convalescent home and then went to stay with her and her parents in Keswick. On Armistice Day in 1918 she was in Edinburgh receiving treatment for her health. She walked into the empty cathedral and sang a Schubert song, with the words ‘All souls rest in peace’. Apart from some correspondence with staff and officers, she played no further part in the NCF until the closing Convention in November 1919, where she received ‘an affectionate ovation.’

After the war, she continued her involvement with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, She attended the Women’s International Congress in Zurich in 1919, and as League of Nations representative 1920-21 on the International Commission set up by the Red Cross in Geneva to tackle the Russian famine. She represented WILPF in the early days of the League of Nations, and in 1920 she was the first person to study the rules of procedure for the League’s first Assembly, realising they were undemocratic and getting them altered. In 1923-4 she was a WILPF envoy to heads of state in France and Germany at the time of the French invasion of the Ruhr, where she visited non-violent resistance workers. She was also committed to the Labour Party, but refused to stand as an MP when asked. In the 1930s she became involved with the plight of German and Austrian Jewish refugees, many of whom were given asylum in her Keswick home. This concern apparently led to a modification of her pacifism. She died, after a fall at her home in London, on 22nd March 1961.

Her papers, in which no archive had been interested during her life, remained bundled into chests in an old shed in the grounds of her Keswick house. Fortunately the house was bought by the local council and eventually years later when the papers were discovered, they were offered to the local archivist. They are now available in the Cumbria Records Office in Carlisle. They form a unique and invaluable record of the suffrage and pacifist movements before and during WW1. A researcher from Canada, Jo Vellacott, helped to organise them, and wrote a biography of Catherine up to 1914 (and she is working on next instalment). Giving a talk in 2014 about Catherine she said ‘It matters to keep the story of Catherine Marshall and her like alive…Marshall would have liked a strong educational programme to help people look at better ways of making internal decisions. She wanted to pursue peacemaking on the basis not of hatred and vindictiveness, but on something that would last. That did not happen, of course (after WW1) but the lesson remains.’


The Tribunal, Thursday, June 15, 1916

The Success of the N.-C.F.
All who are associated with the No-Conscription Fellowship are feeling proud to-day of its wonderful growth and vitality, its efficiency as an organisation, and the position it has won for itself in the political field. And these are things we may well be proud of, because they are the outcome and the living witness of a great faith. But there were not the goal towards which the founders of the Fellowship set their faces. They are among the things which we have been told shall be added unto them who seek first the Kingdom of God.

It is a great thing to have obtained the recognition of conscience in an Act of Parliament; it is a great thing to have stirred the conscience of a nation, as our national conscience has been stirred, by the unflinching facing of persecution for conscience’ sake; but it is a yet greater and more blessed thing to have given strength to hundreds of individual men to stand fast by their highest ideals and their faith in human brotherhood at a time when the very foundations of faith and hope and love seemed shaken. And this is what the Fellowship has done and is doing. By its wonderful meetings it has given inspiration and the job of comradeship to thousands of men and women throughout the country; it has saved from lifelong remorse many a weaker brother whose loyalty to his conscience was in danger because of the overwhelming odds arrayed against it; it has brought strength and comfort to many a humble soul who thought himself alone in following a light which his companions seemed not to see.

The Fellowship has opened its doors to all who are striving to follow that light, all who are prepared to refuse to arm and to kill, whatever may be the penalties of such refusal. It has developed a corporate policy, as every healthy organisation must, but it has maintained in its relations with its members the utmost liberty of individual action. It is not a Tribunal, presuming to judge between conscience and conscience. It is not a State, claiming that loyalty to itself should supersede loyalty to a man’s own standard of right and wrong. It seeks to give expression within its own organisation to the same spirit of friendship and brotherhood, of mutual trust and respect and forbearance, which it desires to see established between the nations.

Loyalty to conscience is the only loyalty the Fellowship demands, and it honours that loyalty whatever different forms it may take in different individual cases. But it must be absolute loyalty. The flag of conscience once raised must never be lowered to any foe. And it must never be raised to cover that which is something other than conscience, else is conscience desecrated. There may be a hundred good reasons for adopting a certain course of action; but the claims of reason are, in the nature of things, liable to yield under pressure of circumstances; the claim of conscience must never yield, never weaken.

Therefore let every man examine himself carefully to make sure exactly what stand his conscience bids him take, and having decided, let him take that stand unflinchingly and with good courage, knowing that he will have the whole strength of the Fellowship to support him, with all the faith, the comradeship, the sympathy which go to make that strength.




Wormwood scrubs
Conscientious objectors requested approval or disapproval whether to hold a hunger strike in Wormwood Scrubs. The reply wasto be conveyed by means of a red or white signal displayed in a certain tree outside the prison, within twelve days. | more

red line